Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Sixth Layer

They never even told me where they'd got the data from. They just delivered it to me, on a regular old compact disk with a laser printed label. "Any cipher on earth, I can break it," I'd told them. That boast seemed to unnerve them a bit.

My team and I tried all the usual tricks on it. We had the best minds, the most powerful computers, any resource I could ask for would be provided at fastest speed. We managed to identify a possible frame for the data, embedded behind two layers of encryption. Each chunk might refer to a letter, a word, a byte. Or it could have been a red herring.

The trouble was what to do with the data once we had it! Each one comprised hundreds of thousands of bytes of data, barely indistinguishable from random noise. When we finally found the third layer, it was one of the junior analysts.

He'd whipped up a program in Java, and rendered the data as a three-dimensional environment. When visualized such, he'd observed that the data formed a sort of landscape around him. So, on a whim, he made himself a virtual avatar, and started to explore. Then he started to apply meaning to the different shapes and blocks. He colored trees, streams of water, grass, even animals. It was uncanny. And most importantly, once we went through and applied his algorithm to the entire message, we realized that together all the blocks formed the continual surface of an odd cube-shaped world.

At first I was disheartened. I thought that we'd uncovered the message itself, that some amateur video game designer or experimental artist was playing a prank on us. But you should have seen the way the CIA guys freaked out when they saw it. They asked for a guided tour of the thing. They didn't have any idea how huge it was. Using the trees and creatures for scale, it had to be a hundred times the size of Earth!

At the insistence of my chain of command, we started to explore this virtual world. It was oddly compelling. All our analysts said it was unlike any video game they'd played before. And yet it was so simple! Simple geometry, simple elegance. It really started to draw them in. They would spend hours on the hills and inside the caves and crossing the oceans. That's when they came up with the fourth layer.

It turned out there was a mathematical relationship between the individual parts of the world. Eventually they arranged them in a hierarchy, a sort of natural economy. They resolved in a very natural way into a set of rules for interacting with the world. It was like a door had been opened. There was so much more to discover once they started re-arranging the world. Soon, the interactions resulted in more and more types of objects. Some objects were obvious - tools for digging, tools for cutting, tools for carrying. That's where we found the fifth layer.

While playing with one of the objects which they'd yet to assign a meaning to, a team of the fellows discovered that part of the object could be rendered as a hydrogen atom. Then we realized it actually described the isotope deuterium, and several other elements and isotopes were described in it. We showed it to one of the rated physicists, and he came back two days later, his eyes wide in wonder.

We'd discovered the plans for a cold fusion device. I considered it yet another layer of the absurdly complex hoax and forgot about it for months. I have since learned that they actually managed to build a working model, only a few months before the end.

By that time my project was being managed by a committee of very high-ranking people. Some of them were military, others from the executive branch. They all pressed even harder for me to keep discovering. That's where I made my mark on this whole mess, my own terrible bit of brilliance that did in the entire human race.

You see, it was my idea to publish the fourth layer as a video game. By use of a one-way hashing algorithm I concocted, we could allow anyone in the world to find the patterns in the data without being able to view the data itself. We started the whole thing as the most well-funded "independent" game ever created. And the gamers loved it, they came in droves, and within days they were finding patterns in the virtual worlds, few of which I ever saw before they were spirited away to the cloistered scientific experts.

I didn't notice the sixth layer until it was too late. None of us did. Hardly any of us knows it came from the game and all the others have been eliminated. I'm alone in this knowledge because in all that time I never once played it. I was right for the wrong reasons. I thought the whole thing was an attempt at humor, an idle distraction. But when my analysts started refusing food, when whole flocks of people started abandoning their work, their lives, there own children just to play the game... I finally started to suspect.

One of the last times I ever saw another person, it was the President of the United States. I told him he had to shut down the Internet. Did you know he had that power? He picked up the red phone on his desk, and held it to his ear, waiting for some waiting military officer to pick up. Then, suddenly, his face fell.

"He says he'll have to call me back," he said, his voice a mixture of shock and horror.

"Call you back? Why..."

"He says he just needs five more diamonds."

Soon after that, the President was spirited away to an undisclosed location. I was just left there, in the Oval Office, all by myself, with the emergency supplies and the supple, made-in-America sofas. People used to wander in from time to time, but I haven't seen anyone in a while. The power's still on, and there's a laptop computer there too. I wonder if it will run the Game?

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